It was about midnight on April 28 and Higgins had flown back into Chico airport and was heading home on Manzanita Avenue, just passing Bidwell Park.
“I thought it was a tumbleweed. It was flopping around in the middle of the road.”
But the grown lion ignored Higgins and his car, concentrating on killing the deer it had just brought down.
“It took about three minutes to kill the deer. I’ll never forget it. It methodically killed it. Just sat on its neck.”
Higgins estimated he watched the scene for about 15 minutes before the mountain lion dragged the deer to some bushes off the road.
Higgins called 9-1-1.
“It wasn’t scared of me at all.”
In his rear-view mirror, Higgins saw a man walking up, and seconds he later would have passed the hidden mountain lion if Higgins hadn’t yelled at him to turn around.
Higgins said cars whizzed by on the lane farthest from the mountain lion, but his vehicle blocked the closer lane.
Higgins gave a detailed description to the police on their arrival and then started to proceed home. He was driving on Chico Canyon Road and noticed the mountain lion, which ran off into upper Bidwell Park.
“It had to have gone through people’s backyards to be there,” observed Higgins.
The half-eaten deer was still there the following morning.
For now, there’s nothing unusual about this incident, said California Fish and Game warden Henry Lomeli, who with warden Sam Castillo investigated the incident.
Lomeli described the situation as a normal one for the mountain lion, which was feeding itself and has not attacked a person.
Lomeli said Fish and Game was monitoring the situation closely.
Mountain lions have been witnessed in Bidwell Park for years, but this is one of the few attacks on a deer with a human witness.
Enticing mountain lions are the nearly-tame deer that wander Bidwell Park. The park also provides natural cover and water for animals, and pets of park neighbors are sometimes dinner.
Lomeli suspects the lion wandered down the Big Chico Creek corridor, finding food, water and shelter.
Lomeli said park visitors should be careful, but probably have more to fear out of two-legged park visitors than mountain lions.
The warden has talked to neighbors and is monitoring the activities of the mountain lion, but there are no plans to relocate it unless the opportunity presents itself.
If a deer was killed and the lion was going back to feed on it, Fish and Game might place a trap in the area to capture it, he said.
There is no plan to search upper Bidwell Park to capture the animal.
“We’re hoping it moves back into the hills,” said Lomeli, who suspects it has been displaced from its former territory.
“As the state’s mountain lion population grows, they won’t stay in the mountains. New adults are ranging out to find new territory.”
Lomeli called it a “no harm no foul” situation in which the mountain lion has done no harm to a human.
“The lion is behaving normally and not exhibiting a public safety threat. But we want the public to be cautious and aware of the dangers.”
Mountain lions are periodically sighted in upper Bidwell Park, and coyotes and foxes are seen as well. There have been incidents where mountain lions considered a public danger have been killed.
A few years ago, a bear wandered along then-Whitman Avenue in the early morning hours, but was killed because it was heading for the commuter-busy freeway.
Tips for behaving around mountain lions
Here are a few tips from the Department of Fish and Game about interacting with mountain lions.
* Avoid surprising animals. Make noise and stay aware — especially on sections of trail with limited sight lines.
* Tune into your surroundings so you can hear approaching animals — leave the headphones at home.
* Avoid hiking or running alone from dusk to dawn — the animals are less likely to approach a large group than an individual.
* Keep children in sight — talk to them about mountain lions and what to do if they encounter a lion.
* If you encounter a mountain lion, don’t run — stay calm, maintain eye contact, and back up slowly. Try to appear larger than the lion by raising your arms or opening your jacket. Pick up small children, and throw stones, branches or whatever is in reach without crouching or turning away from the lion. Speak firmly in a loud voice.
If you encounter a mountain lion or have questions, contact the Park Division at 896-7800, or the Police Department at 897-4900.
By LAURA URSENY – Staff Writer